How do we know right from wrong? Is there a part of the brain which can distinguish between them?
Do animals know right from wrong?
How does the brain recognize when something works, or when it doesn’t. Or when something is good or bad?
Are moral principles instinctive? Is knowing right from wrong ‘hard-wired’ in the brain?
The brain must be able to quickly sort out qualitative experiences in order to make survival decisions.
The ability of the brain to detect what is right or wrong in a situation, what is normal or abnormal, what works or doesn’t, is the evolutionary origin of morality.
Morality is a set of principles or codes which voluntarily govern the social behavior of humans and other animals.
From the view of Darwinian evolution, a community whose members are prepared to support one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, have a better chance for survival. In this way, the standard of morality would tend to increase over time.
Although knowing right from wrong may be instinctive, acting on moral instincts is probably learned, in the same way that we learn a spoken language, through imitation and practice.
Darwin has suggested that humans first learned from experience that benevolent actions could be returned. And that the habit of benevolence could be imitated, which may lead to sympathy.
As reasoning and foresight became improved, individuals perceived the more subtle consequences of their actions. Virtues such as temperance, fidelity, and courtesy, which were once completely disregarded, became elevated to a position of esteem.
Darwin cites other useful virtues including keeping promises, helping others, praise, blame, shame, obedience, guilt, remorse, encouragement, admiration, sympathy, courage, patriotism, mutual aid, the distribution of benevolent actions, and benign responses.
While a high standard of morality provides only a slight survival advantage to an individual, an increase in the standard of morality for all individuals provides a significant advantage to society as a whole.
As Darwin points out, selfish and contentious people do not form coherent communities.
In general, the brain’s ability to perceive what is right and wrong in a particular situation is based on a set of rules which are ‘hard-wired’ in the brain. These rules underlie a sense of appropriateness, or cognitive proportionality, which is an emergent property of evolution.
We have evolved as a direct reflection of our environment. Our physical characteristics, including behavior, are responses to the laws and principles which define the physical world. Over time, these laws have shaped the various modalities of perception and cognition.
When we instinctively understand that something is amiss within the context of a particular situation, the brain is probably comparing what it sees or experiences against a set of cognitive maps based on our perceptions of the real world, and our context within it.
These brain maps may contain references to patterns in nature which are based on proportional relations such as symmetry, spatial and temporal proximity, and scale. And it is likely that these elements are related to the mental imaging of such things as opposites, contradiction, paradox, and ultimately morality.
The brain transfers this information into social behavior, molding and modifying our beliefs and values, spreading its influence within the culture.